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Case study:
Blue – and grey – sky thinking

Blue sky

Teams of scientists hunch over instruments and computers aboard what appears to be an ordinary passenger plane, but it is in fact an airborne laboratory capable of measuring important atmospheric properties and responding within hours to atmospheric pollution incidents anywhere in the world.

Many members of The University of Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences staff lead and contribute to these activities on board this national facility, managed by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, a NERC Centre.

Professor Hugh Coe
Professor Hugh Coe

While the aircraft is the platform for collecting the important data, the real analysis takes place at the School’s Simon Building, in the Centre for Atmospheric Science.

Under Professor Hugh Coe the team has developed world-leading expertise on the impact of pollution on climate and the ability to quantify the effect of aerosol particles within changing atmospheres.

Over the past two years alone they have provided data on the 2012 Icelandic ash cloud that enabled the UK’s grounded airline industry to get back into the skies; extracted the first accurate measurement of how much gas was being emitted from the damaged North Sea Elgin platform; and are now working with the Brazilian government to evaluate the effect of biomass burning on climate and crop growth in the Sao Paulo region.

“During the ash cloud event, airlines were unable to operate and wanted the engine manufacturers to tell them how much airborne ash their engines could safely tolerate,” explains Professor Coe.

“The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had grounded all flights and the situation just went on and on. The engine manufacturers determined a limit of ash mass for safe operation and it was the Met Office’s job to predict the ash mass across the UK, allowing the CAA to decide whether or not to close UK airspace.

“We flew into the cloud to determine exactly how much ash was there and how high up it was.”

Professor Hugh Coe / Professor of Atmospheric Composition

“We flew into the cloud to determine exactly how much ash was there and how high up it was. The data provided the Met Office with the information they needed to verify their model predictions and so help the CAA decide that flights could resume.

“Without going to the scene and carrying out detailed measurements this wouldn’t have been possible.

“Our research and analysis at Elgin had a similarly practical outcome and now in Brazil we are providing important data for prediction of weather and climate that affect everything from transport infrastructure to crop growth.

“The School of Earth and Environmental Sciences is an inspiring place to work and it is fantastic to be able to do so among so many motivated young scientists, who are using fundamental physical science to tackle globally complex problems.”

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